By Shamindra Ferdinando
Civil society activists are sharply divided over their strategy to deal with the government. The majority of them have found fault with the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC) for undermining the overall civil society strategy by entering into a high profile dialogue with the government.
The Sri Lanka Civil Society Forum (SLCSF) in particular is disappointed over the way the SLCC handled contentious issues. The outfit is concerned that the government would take advantage of the ongoing dialogue with the SLCC thereby cause irreparable damage to achieving a post-war national reconciliation on their terms.
The issues at hand, in the eyes of SLCSF, are curbs on civil society, enactment of the 20th Amendment, continuing use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), threats on social justice activists and media, transitional justice, enforced disappearances, arbitrary use of quarantine regulations, inordinate delay in a political settlement to the national problem, delay in proper investigations into 2019 Easter Sunday attacks and the delay related to introducing reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.
The SLCSF consists of 30 organisations, including Families of the Disappeared, Centre for Policy Alternatives, IMADR- Asia Committee, Right to Life Human Rights Centre, Women and Media Collective, Rights Now for Collective Democracy, Centre for Society and Religion, Women’s Action Network, Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, Centre for Women and Development – Jaffna, Law and Society Trust, AHAM Humanitarian Resource Center (AHRC), Trincomalee, Rural Development Foundation, Institute for Social Development, Janawabodha Kendraya, Web Journalist Association of Sri Lanka, Eastern Social Development Foundation, Human Elevation Organisation, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement, National Fisher Women’s Federation, Mannar Women’s Development Federation, Malarum Mottukal Women’s Collective, Alliance for Minorities, Rule of Law Forum, Food First Information and Action Network – Sri Lanka, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Mannar Social and Economic Development Organisation, Citizens Committee Human Rights Centre – Gampaha, Sri Vimukthi Fisher Women Organization and Centre for Human Rights and Development.
The live wires in the SLCSF are Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Gehan Gunatilleke, Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Dr. Mario Gomez, Dr. Sakunthala Kadirgamar, Rev. Rohan de Silva, Britto Fernando, K. S. Ratnavale, Ms. Shreen Saroor, Ms. Ambika Sathkunanathan, Philip Dissanayake, Ms. Kumudhini Samuel, Godfrey Yogarajah, Prabodha Ratnayake, Ameer Faaiz, Thilak Kariyawasam, Ms Saroja Sivachandran, Aruna Shantha Nonis, Ms Bhavani Fonseka, Ruki Fernando, Periyasami Muthulingam, Gowthaman Balachandran, Sudarshana Gunawardana, Freddy Gamage, Abdul Ramees, Ms Sumika Perera, Ms Marreen Srinika Nilasini, Asanka Abeyrathna, Ms Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan, Herman Kumara, Jehan Jegatheesan, Yartan Figurado, Shantha Pathirana, Ms A.D. Rajani, Ms M. Kusum Silva and Vinoth Anthony.
However, some of those who represented the SLCSF, in a statement issued recently, strongly criticised the SLCC. Inquiries revealed that statement hadn’t been issued as the SLCSF but signified a major rift among civil society groups since the last presidential election in Nov 2019. The media received that statement from Ambika Sathkunanathan, former outspoken member of the Human Rights Commission (HRC). She resigned from the HRC in early March 2020. Her resignation fueled speculation that she would campaign for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) at the general election scheduled for April 2020 but later postponed to August 2020. When one Chanaka Dissanayake tweeted on January 9, 2021 that Sathkunanathan exposed HRC being biased by throwing her weight behind the TNA campaign, she tweeted: “after I resigned from HRCSL, was asked to contest by TNA & refused. Was on National List but never campaigned for TNA. Was never part of or participated in their election or any other campaign. Pls fact check. Care to comment on current Chair-HRCSL being a politician? She was referring to Dr. Jagath Balasuriya, formerly of the SLFP parliamentary group being appointed HRCSL Chairman by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In spite of severe criticism, the SLCC, spearheaded by Dr. Jehan Perera, one-time darling of the Norwegians, has sustained the project and seems to be confident in continuing with the effort. Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris recently addressed a conference, organised by the National Peace Council (NPC), the leading element in the SLCC. The Foreign Minister and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) Chairman’s participation at the event, organised on the theme of ‘Plural Sri Lanka: Paths to Reconciliation’ underscored the government appreciation of that particular civil society grouping.
It would be pertinent to mention that both Prof. Peiris and UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet referred to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government entering into a dialogue at the March 2021 Geneva sessions. The government seems somewhat comfortable in having a continuous dialogue with at least a section of the civil society as part of overall efforts to appease Western powers.
Unfortunately, the incumbent administration has conveniently forgotten the dire need to contradict an accountability resolution co-sponsored by the yahapalana government in Oct 2015. That contentious resolution based on unsubstantiated allegations resulted in strictures.
Western powers insulted the war-winning Sri Lanka Army by refusing to accept retired military officers as Ambassadors or High Commissioners, denied visas to serving and retired officers, and the US named Army Chief General Shavendra Silva as a war criminal.
The government seems unaware that the NPC has absolutely no interest in genuine reconciliation. Perhaps the government does not care to set the record straight. Beset by a range of simmering political and economic issues, the government appeared to have placed the accountability issue on the back burner. If the NPC is genuine in its efforts, it would have certainly made a bid to reconcile the communities by helping the government to establish the truth.
The writer was not surprised when NPC acknowledged that war-related matters hadn’t been discussed at the nearly two-year-long reconciliation project that brought together students from Eastern, Jaffna, Ruhuna and Sabaragamuwa Universities.
Pointing out those post-war reconciliation efforts had been badly hampered by allegations that the Sri Lankan military killed over 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front, The Island sought clarification as regards measures taken by the NPC to improve relations among the communities, and the following question was raised:
The Island: During your two-year long project did participants discuss specific war crimes allegations and disclosure made in the House of Lords in Oct 2017 that contradicted unsubstantiated accusations pertaining to 40,000 civilian deaths.
Executive Director NPC Dr. Jehan Perera: “No, we did not discuss these war-related matters. The project was titled “Creative Youth Engagement for Pluralism” and it focused on the nature of Sri Lanka as a plural society and the value framework that should guide it.
It would be a grave mistake on the government’s part to believe the SLCC would assist Sri Lanka counter lies. Dr. Perera was quite close to the yahapalana administration, the late Mangala Samaraweera accommodated him on the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva sessions in March 2018. There hadn’t been a previous instance of civil society representing the government in Geneva.
Regrettably, the incumbent government for some unexplained reason, continues, to refrain from making a proper response on behalf of the war-winning armed forces in Geneva. Information (Gash papers) provided by Lord Naseby that may help Sri Lanka to challenge lies remain unused. The British Conservative Lord, a true friend of Sri Lanka, made them available to us in late 2017.
Whatever the differences among the civil society members, they would never under any circumstances help Sri Lanka to counter war crimes accusations. Those who receive foreign funding and sponsorships cannot help the Sri Lankan military clear its name. They have to dance to the tune of their Western pay masters. The government will realise its folly at the next Geneva session in March 2022.
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka alleged in Parliament recently that modern-day Mahawamsa chroniclers had done a grave injustice to those who led the fight, with their poor recording of Eelam War IV. Sri Lanka’s failure to counter Western strategy should be examined taking into consideration the war winning Army Chief’s accusation.
SLCC under fire
A statement issued by Ambika Sathkunanathan, on behalf of a group of individuals, dealt with a statement, dated Nov 29, put out by the SLCC following consultations with the government. The statement condemned the government-SLCC dialogue on the PTA. Dismissing proposals meant to reform the PTA, the group called for repeal of the PTA and in the interim an immediate moratorium on the use of the law.
The group reiterated that any law that purports to deal with terrorism must adhere to international human rights standards. The following are the signatories to the statement issued by Sathkunanathan: S. Annalaxumy, Bisliya Bhutto, S.C.C. Elankovan, A.M. Faaiz, Brito Fernando, Nimalka Fernando, Ruki Fernando, Aneesa Firthous, Amarasingham Gajenthiran, T.Gangeswary, K. Ginogini, Ranitha Gnanarajah, B. Gowthaman, S. Hayakirivan, V. Inthrani, Noorul Ismiya, Dr. Sakuntala Kadirgamar, S. Kamalakanthan, Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan, Kandumani Lavakusarasa, Jensila Majeed, Buhary Mohamed, Juwairiya Mohideen, Jaabir Raazi Muhammadh, P. Muthulingam, Thangaraja Prashanthiran, Dorin Rajani, Maithreyi Rajasingham, A.R.A. Ramees, V. Ranjana, K.S. Ratnavale, Yamini Ravindran, Kumudini Samuel, Thurainayagam Sanjeevan, Shreen Saroor, Ambika Satkunanathan, Rev. Fr. S.D.P. Selvan, S. Selvaranie, Vanie Simon, P.N. Singham, Usha Sivakumar, N. Sumanthi, Vani Sutha, Ermiza Tegal, S. Thileepan, P. Vasanthagowrey, Rev. Fr. Yogeswaran, Adayalam Centre for Policy Research Alliance for Minorities, Centre for Human Rights and Development Centre for Justice and Change, Eastern Social Development Foundation, Families of the Disappeared, Forum for Plural Democracy, Law and Society Trust, Mannar Women’s Development Federation, Rural Development Foundation, Tamil Civil Society Forum, Viluthu, and Women’s Action Network.
Some sections of the civil society feel the SLCC’s dialogue with the government can be exploited by the latter. They question the incumbent government’s sincerity as tangible measures haven’t been taken to address the grievances of the minorities. The SLCC comprises Ven. Kalupahana Piyaratana Thera – Convenor, Inter Religious Alliance for National Unity, Chairman, Human Development Edification Centre, Bishop Asiri Perera – Retired President Bishop of Methodist Church, Rev. Fr. C.G. Jeyakumar – Parish Priest Ilavalai and Lecturer at the Jaffna Major Seminary, Human Rights Activist, Dr. Joe William – Founder member and Chairman of National Peace Council, Director, Centre for Communication Training and Convenor, Alliance for Justice, Prof. T. Jayasingam – Director NPC, former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University and former member, Public Service Commission of the Eastern Provincial Council, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva – Professor Emeritus Dept of Sociology, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Dayani Panagoda – Social Activist, former director of Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process and Lecturer, former member of the Official Languages Commission, Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa – Peace Activist, Chair of Association of War Affected Women, Dr. Jehan Perera – Founder member and Executive Director of NPC, Dr. P. Saravanamuttu – Founder Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Hilmy Ahamed – Vice President Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Sanjeewa Wimalagunarathna – Former director of Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, Rohana Hettiarachchi – Executive Director PAFFREL, Javid Yusuf – Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former member of Human Rights Commission, former member, Constitutional Council, former principal, Zahira College and Founder member and Governing Council member, NPC, Varnakulasingham Kamaladas- President STA solidarity foundation, Convenor, Assembly of Hindus for Peace and Harmony, and Ms. Sarah Arumugam – Human Rights Lawyer (This list was made available by Dr. Perera in response to the writer’s request)
Focus on post-Easter Sunday attacks
A second statement issued by Ambika Sathkunanathan on behalf of smaller group of activists namely Radhika Coomaraswamy, Nimalka Fernando, Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Chulani Kodikara, Rehab Mamoor, Yamini Ravindran, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Kumudini Samuel, Shreen Saroor, Ambika Satkunanathan and Muqaddasa Wahid following a two-day visit to Batticaloa dealt with the difficulties experienced by those affected by the Easter Sunday carnage. The National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) targeted a church in Batticaloa.
The statement focused on the continued challenges faced by the Christian community in exercising their right to practice their faith freely and without fear. The group blamed the situation on both extra-legal state interference, as well as social discrimination by the Hindu community and the Catholic Church. The group stated: “Christian pastors highlighted the phenomenon of Hindu groups that propagate Hindutva-like ideologies and have affiliations to the Shiv Sena in India, targeting the Christian community.
Other forms of discrimination, marginalisation and harassment of the Christian community include denial of permission to establish places of worship, preventing them from using the public cemetery, denying their children admission to national schools, interruption of prayer meetings, including through the use of violence, and perpetration of violence against pastors. We were informed that complaints to the police often have no impact as the police do not take any action. The security agencies reportedly visit churches and request information about congregants, supposedly to ensure that those who are not part of the congregation are not allowed to enter the churches. The pastors however stated this only served to intimidate them and was contrary to the open and inclusive policy they practiced of welcoming persons of all faiths.”
The group appeared to have ignored controversial statement made by TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran, PC within days after the Easter Sunday carnage. Lawmaker Sumanthiran alleged that the Easter Sunday carnage was a result of Sri Lanka’s failure to ensure certain basic values. Did he justify the Easter Sunday attacks?
The Jaffna District MP warned of dire consequences unless the government addressed the grievances of the minorities. MP Sumanthiran said that no conversation took place without reference to Easter Sunday attacks. The lawmaker said that the public were asking what was going to happen because the country was stunned by what happened on that day. Sumanthiran: “All of us were so complacent we lived in a fool’s paradise imagining that the country was at peace in the absence of violence.”
As there had been no fighting for 10 years people assumed the country had attained peace. All that was shattered that morning on Easter Sunday, the MP said.
Such an attack would have happened some day because the country had not laid the foundation for peaceful co-existence in this country the TNA heavyweight said. “What we saw was a false edifice. And we were quite happy to carry on with that. Three decades of violent conflict that emanated from the North and East kept us on our toes and those days we actually saw the need to address those issues in a very deep and meaningful way”.
Sumanthiran alleged that once the war was brought to a conclusion in May 2009, those responsible assumed there was no requirement to address those issues. They continued to pay lip service, the lawmaker alleged, adding: “Whenever issues were raised, they say they must resolve those issues. But deep down, they didn’t feel those issues had to be addressed”.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the Easter Sunday carnage owed an elucidation as to why an explanation was not sought from Sumanthiran. In fact, the writer brought to the PCoI’s notice the TNA MP’s statement when the police unit attached to the outfit recorded his statement as regards the justification of terrorist attacks.
Many years before Sumanthiran entered Parliament as a TNA National List MP in 2010, his party recognised the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people. Did the LTTE achieve TNA’s cooperation at gun point? The LTTE and the TNA worked as a team. It was a deadly combination.
Following the 2004 general election, the European Union Election Observation Mission faulted the TNA for receiving the LTTE’s backing to secure the lion’s share of parliamentary seats in the Northern and Eastern provinces with the latter stuffing the ballot boxes.
Having faithfully served the LTTE throughout the war, the TNA backed General Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the 2010 presidential election. The civil society didn’t find fault with the TNA for backing the war-winning Army Commander nor blamed the group for depriving the Northern Province Tamils of their right to vote at the 2005 presidential election. The LTTE and the TNA worked on this project together. No less a person than R. Sampanthan, the current TNA leader confirmed the decision with this writer a few days before the election. Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu was the only civil society activist to take a courageous stand against the LTTE-TNA polls boycott decision.
The government should realise that it should set the record straight in Geneva. The current Geneva project cannot be reversed by engaging the civil society and the Tamil Diaspora. The recent announcement made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as regards an SLN intelligence officer and former Staff Sergeant of the Army underscored the fact that the sinister Western agenda was continuing. The recent declaration of the above-mentioned officers as gross violators of human rights should be examined against the backdrop of Army Commander General Shavendra Silva still being blacklisted.
Sri Lanka conflict: ICRC footprint
For some strange reason Sri Lanka never asked the international community to examine a report released by the UN Country Team that dealt with the situation in the Vanni from Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009. That report, prepared with the help of the ICRC and the national staff of the UN and NGOs, placed the number of dead during this period at 7,221 and wounded 18,479 (both civilians and LTTE). The UN findings contradicted the Report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts (PoE), which was more like a handpicked kangaroo court out to hang Sri Lanka on Accountability (section 134). As to how it plucked the figure of an estimated number of dead at 40,000 civilians (section 137) out of nowhere, when Amnesty International placed the number of dead at 10,000, is anybody’s guess.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
‘Humanity in War: Frontline photography since 1860’, an ICRC publication that dealt with wars and conflicts, included two photographs of Sri Lanka’s war against separatist terrorists.
The Island recently received a 247-page book from Ruwanthi Jayasundare, Head of Communication at the International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC, Colombo. One of the pictures taken in 2007, in the eastern Batticaloa district, depicted the scene in a camp for the displaced.
Dominic Sansoni captured that scene at a time the military had been making steady progress in the Eastern theatre of operations where major battles erupted in August 2006. Incidentally, Dominic is the son of the late Edward Claude Sansoni (18 November 1904 – 1979), the 32nd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Justice Sansoni, during his retirement, also presided over a Presidential Commission of Inquiry that looked into the incidents which took place between 13th August and 15th September 1977, soon after the UNP was swept into power with a record 5/6th majority in Parliament, and findings of that Commission, released in 1980, might be a dispassionate eye-opener to the roots of the ethnic conflict.
The other picture (published in this page) that had been taken by Alfred Grimm, for the ICRC, in 1991, at an undisclosed location, illustrated the severe difficulties experienced by the military on the northern front.
Having lost the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to the Jaffna peninsula to the LTTE, the year before, within months after the Indian Army completed its withdrawal in March 1990 (July 1987 to March 1990), the Army had to depend on the ICRC to arrange transfer of bodies of officers and men killed in action from LTTE-held areas to government controlled regions in the North and East.
That pathetic picture of coffins placed on a dilapidated jetty before being loaded to a vessel carrying the ICRC flag aptly reflects the much repeated adage that a picture paints a thousand words. A senior retired Navy officer asserted that the picture could have been taken at the Point Pedro jetty that had been under LTTE control at that time. Obviously, the ICRC preferred to use PPD to please the LTTE as the neighbouring Kankesanthurai harbor had been under Navy control throughout the war.
In some instances, the LTTE refused to arrange the transfer of bodies overland. Instead, the group insisted on the ICRC’s involvement as part of its overall strategy meant to humiliate the military, struggling to cope with the onslaughts.
Alfred Grimm’s still image explained the developing precarious situation in the northern theatre of operations, at that time, in the wake of the Army losing all detachments north of Vavuniya, right up to Elephant Pass, on the Kandy-Jaffna A 9 road. It would be pertinent to mention that the Army had to launch the largest single amphibious operation ‘Balawegaya,’ in 1991, to thwart an LTTE attempt to overrun the Elephant Pass base after laying siege to it. There hadn’t been such a large operation until the combined armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in 2009.
In the Jaffna peninsula, the entire military deployment was restricted to the Palaly-Kankesanthurai sector and the Jaffna Fort at a time the international community believed the LTTE could ultimately overwhelm the government forces. Having been in touch with the ICRC since its initial deployment here during the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure (1989-1993), the writer felt the Geneva-headquartered organisation, too, believed the LTTE couldn’t be defeated militarily by our security forces.
The Interim Secretariat for Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRAM), busy in building required legal and policy framework, operational procedures and guidelines for the proposed Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR), should examine the gradual development of the conflict in proper context to ensure a precise narrative.
Fifteen years after the end of the conflict, ISTRAM faces a daunting task, especially against the backdrop of various interested parties seeking to influence the overall process. The crux of the problem is, in the absence of a proper government strategy, all stakeholders seemed to be bent on holding the military and police responsible for alleged atrocities perpetrated during the conflict, while numerous wily deadly acts, committed by terrorists, are hardly ever mentioned, even though even the US Federal Bureau of Investigation called the LTTE the most ruthless terrorist organisation.
Canada, playing politics with voters of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, has, without any inquiry whatsoever, blindly declared that the country committed genocide during the conflict All major political parties there have bent backwards to appease the Tamil electorate and they are going to increase pressure on Sri Lanka as the next Canadian federal election approaches. The election is scheduled for Oct 20, 2025, or before, and already the Tamil electorate is exploiting the situation to tarnish Sri Lanka even more with their wild allegations that are lapped up by Canadian politicians with an eye on Tamil votes.
The recent attack on Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) office, in Canada, by obvious terrorist sympathisers, for them having been part of a Tamil Diaspora team that met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and continuing controversy over a statement attributed to incumbent Canadian High Commissioner here, Eric Walsh, by the President of the Canada branch of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), over the Himalayan Declaration, propagated by the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), underscored how important the Tamil Canadian vote is for unscrupulous politicians.
The recent declaration by Canada’s Conservative Party leader, Pierre Poilievre, that he would take Sri Lanka to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and appoint lawyers to pursue charges against “accused” war criminals in the International Criminal Court (ICC), should be examined against above apt background.
Obviously, most of these people are only out for revenge from those who defeated LTTE terrorism, in the battlefield, and not reconciliation by any stretch of the imagination, as happened in South Africa, where despite white rulers having treated blacks worse than animals under apartheid rule, the black and other oppressed people there were willing to forgive and forget things done to them far worse than anything that happened in Sri Lanka.
Premadasa invites ICRC
Let us examine the deployment of ICRC here in late 1989. By then, the JVP terror campaign had run out of steam. A few months after the arrival of ICRC here, the Army captured and executed JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera. At that time, the Indian Army, too, was deployed in the North East and controversy was brewing over President Premadasa’s declaration that India should immediately call off its Sri Lanka mission.
President Premadasa invited the ICRC to meet humanitarian needs caused by the second JVP terrorist campaign and equally murderous government response to it at a time President Premadasa was having a honeymoon (May 1989-June 1990) with Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Just months after the ICRC’s arrival, the government eradicated the JVP, but fighting erupted in the north in June, 1990, paving the way for the group to expand its operations to cover the entire country. The ICRC deployment covered the area under government control as well as the LTTE-held area. The ICRC played a significant role with President Premadasa’s government in disarray in the wake of the LTTE’s resumed violent campaign to divide Sri Lanka was making rapid progress.
By then the Indian Army had left our shores following a spat between President Premadasa and then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi.
A case in point is the ICRC’s high profile intervention to declare a demilitarised zone in the area covering the Jaffna Fort and the Jaffna hospital in the last week of July 1990, several weeks after the LTTE launched Eelam War II. The LTTE made repeated attempts to overrun the isolated Jaffna Fort, at that time held by the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment. The ICRC pushed for a tripartite agreement involving the government, the LTTE and the ICRC on the basis that such an understanding could prevent the battle for the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort from jeopardizing the lives of those seeking treatment at the premier medical institution in the peninsula, as well as its staff.
However, the audacious LTTE disregarded the ICRC. Prabhakaran sensed an impending significant battlefield victory. The LTTE fought hard to force the beleaguered troops to surrender. Finally, President Premadasa authorised the military to break the siege on the Jaffna Fort. The ICRC hadn’t been happy with that move but what no one really anticipated was Premadasa’s government quirky decision to vacate the Jaffna Fort two weeks after having ended the siege at great cost. Nearly 50 officers and men made the supreme sacrifice and over 100 were wounded in that operation to break the siege. Did they die in vain? What made Premadasa to vacate the Jaffna Fort in late Sept 1990? The Army moved to Jaffna Fort in 1985 as Indian trained terrorists intensified attacks in the Jaffna peninsula. Don’t forget half a dozen terrorist groups, including the LTTE operated at that time.
By the time of Eelam war 11 entered its fourth year in 1993, the ICRC had quite a substantial presence in the North-East.
ICRC negotiating for policemen’s release
The LTTE massacred several hundred policemen after they were ordered to surrender to the Tigers by President Premadasa’s government. However, some of them, approximately 50, including several Tamil law enforcement personnel, were held in detention camps in the north. Some of them were lucky to communicate with their families, through the ICRC.
Dominique Dufour, who succeeded ICRC head in Colombo, Wettach Pierre ,in late 1992, on a number of occasions provided useful information regarding policemen in captivity. Dufour was willing to be quoted and once explained to the writer, at his Colombo office, the ICRC’s efforts to help the detained men communicate with their loved ones against the backdrop of disagreement between the LTTE and the government regarding the families visiting the captives. During Wettach Pierre’s tenure, the ICRC made a determined bid to take families of captives to the north in a ship. According to Dufour, there had been 39 policemen and one soldier (Languishing in Tiger captivity: The forgotten 39, The Sunday Island, Oct 11, 1992).
The ICRC’s role here should be examined, taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s readiness to secure assistance provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Medecins Sans Frontieres, in addition to several other relief organisations. The UNHCR launched its mission here in 1987, two years before the arrival of the ICRC on the invitation of President Premadasa. The MSF first positioned personnel here in 1986, the year before the signing of the Indo-Lanka accord that paved the way for the deployment of the Indian Army. The MSF called off its Sri Lanka mission in March 2004 in the wake of the signing of the secretly arranged Ceasefire Agreement between Sri Lanka and the LTTE by the Norwegians. It was signed by then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe without the approval of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, even though she was the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. But, the MSF returned nine months later, after the tsunami disaster struck Sri Lanka, and remained till the end of 2005.
The MSF re-deployed in the war zone in 2007 and remained here till 2012. On the part of Sri Lanka, there had never been an effort to block foreign assistance reaching the Tamil community in the North-East. In fact, successive governments went out of their way to ensure the supplies reached civilians though they knew the LTTE siphoned a significant portion of the relief sent.
ISTRAM must be aware of ground realities in those days – one such instance had been the UNHCR’s efforts to arrange food convoys across the Jaffna lagoon, using the Sangupiddy ferry.
The then UNHCR’s senior protection officer in Colombo, Dr. Peter Nicolaus, explained to this writer their negotiations with the LTTE to open a supply route, via the Jaffna lagoon, at that time the scene of frequent clashes between Sea Tigers and Navy patrols launched from the Nagathivanthurai naval detachment. The Sunday Island received a briefing after Dr. Nicolaus and UNHCR’s regional legal advisor Bo Schack on Dec 09, 1992, discussed the issue with Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s theoretician and Yogiratnam Yogi in Jaffna (Major role for international relief organizations in NE war, The Sunday Island, January 3, 1993).
None of those shedding crocodile tears for the Tamil community today dared at least to appeal to the LTTE not to block food convoys. Instead, they cooperated with the LTTE efforts to compel the military to give up control over civilian entry/exit points, namely the Elephant Pass causeway, the Sandupiddy-Pooneryn ferry, Kilali route and Kombadi and Orriyan points.
The LTTE later informed the senior Jaffna-based UNHCR officer that food convoys couldn’t be allowed through Sangupiddy unless the government vacated the area to facilitate the international relief effort.
The government, if it is so keen to establish the truth should undertake a thorough examination of developments throughout the conflict.
The high-handed LTTE refused to drop its prerequisite (vacation of Pooneryn-Sangupiddy area by government troops) even after Western powers intervened. In Feb 1992 Dr. Nicolaus told the writer that UNHCR gave up their efforts, disclosing the UN organisation went to the extent of offering to send a delegation from Geneva or New York to Jaffna to discuss the issue at hand (Opening ‘safe passage’ to Jaffna peninsula: Despite appeals Tigers refuse to negotiate with UNHCR, The Island, February 18, 1993).
Later, the LTTE indicated its willingness to drop any perquisites for the opening of a safe passage and participate in negotiations. Dr. Nicolaus confirmed this development. However, at the end the ferry remained non-operational while the Navy and Sea Tigers battled it out in the Jaffna lagoon.
In early Nov 1993, the LTTE smashed through Pooneryn and Nagathivanthurai defences, thereby ended the siege on the Jaffna peninsula (Re-opening of Pooneryn ferry: Tigers drop Army pull-out call, The Island March 21, 1993). The Navy abandoned Nagathevanthurai.
ICRC’s role during Eelam War IV
Sri Lanka never made an honest attempt to build a proper defence against war crimes accusations. In the absence of a cohesive bi-partisan strategy on our part, those campaigning against the war-winning country built a strong case on the basis of repeating the widespread lies that Sri Lanka waged a war without eyewitnesses. Successive governments never bothered to at least examine how the wartime presence of major international NGOs and the UN could have easily countered those allegations as they bore witness as to how the war was conducted.
ISTRAM should examine all relevant factors, especially records of international NGOs and Indian medical teams deployed in the East during the last phase of the offensive against the LTTE on the Vanni east front. It would be silly to entirely depend on claims and allegations made by those who are still smarting from the battlefield defeat of the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit with conventional fighting capabilities at the hands of the security forces despite overt and covert help extended to them by the West and Western-funded NGOs operating from Colombo. They literally built up the LTTE image to the level of invincibility.
Special attention should be paid to the World Food Programme (WFP) records and that of the ICRC as they proved the existence of a sea supply route to Puthamathalan, the last LTTE-held area in the Mullaithivu district. As soon as the land supply route to Mullaithivu had been closed due to intense fighting, the government, the ICRC and WFP launched an operation on February 10, 2009, to move supplies by sea and then use the same vessel to evacuate the wounded to Pulmoddai where they were handed over to the Indian medical team.
The final ICRC vessel reached Puthumathalan on May 09, 2009, just 10 days before Prabhakaran was killed on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Actually, the war ended on the previous day when the Army brought the entire Mullaithivu district under its control. Prabhakaran, his wife Mathivathani, daughter Duvaraga and younger son Balachandran had been hiding within the Army controlled area as the Army declared the war over. Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony was killed in a separate confrontation just before the Army declared the end of war.
It would be the responsibility of ISTRAM to establish the total amount of food, medicine and other supplies moved to the LTTE-held area overland and by sea during January 1, 2009, to May 09, 2009. That would help establish how Sri Lanka allowed the international community to facilitate supplies, though there could have been shortcomings.
The ICRC (international staff) also had access to Puthumathalan until May 09, 2009 whereas the UN (international staff) maintained presence in the war zone till January 29, 2009, and those wounded civilians evacuated from Puthamathalan under ICRC supervision were handed over to Pulmoddai-based Indian medical team.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never argued its case properly before the international community. Let us hope ISTRAM succeeds in reaching consensus on the Sri Lanka narrative.
Message from a Cell Death
By Lynn Ockersz
‘Death couldn’t be proud’…
Nor could wily despots,
Over the cruel snuffing out,
Of a resplendent flame,
In a cold, Arctic cell,
Ironically in the land,
Of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,
But this light heralds anew,
Evergreen political values,
Of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,
Not omitting Human Dignity,
But his inspirational life,
Will speak to us down the ages,
Constantly reminding humans,
That the Sword of the tyrant,
Could never prevail,
Against an unyielding conscience…
That Socrates, the exemplary sage,
Will always upstage Machiavelli.
Groundwork for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation Commission underway
Dr. Elias Joseph Jeyarajah, represented the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) at the recent launch of district level workshops for ‘National Conversation’ based on the Himalaya Declaration. The first inter-religious coordination committee promoting conversations on the merits of the Himalaya Declaration was held in Kurunegala on February 09.
In spite of opposition from various quarters, particularly an influential section of Tamil Diaspora, the organizers went ahead with the project. The participation of US-based Dr. Jeyarajah, one of the eight-member group that met President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo in early December last year underscored the importance of the occasion.
A spokesperson said: “It was the first of the five planned workshops meant to train 150 interfaith clergy and civil society members as coordinators. They will be the key resource persons who will facilitate the planned 25 districts’ conversations, in the coming months. These workshops will all be two-day workshops, spread around the country. Next one will be in Kandy, then in Batticaloa, Matara and Vavuniya.”
About 30 persons received training at the Kurunegala workshop. Participants at Kurunegala workshop included those from neighbouring Puttalam and Anuradhapura districts. The participants comprised clergy from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic and Christian religions and civil society members.
Sangha for Better Sri Lanka (SBSL) that participated in the GTF-led initiative in December last year subsequent to Nepal talks was represented at the Kurunagala workshop by Ven. Madampagama Assaji Tissa Thera, Ven. Prof. Pallekande Rathnasara Thera, Ven. Kithalagama Hemasara Nayake Thera and Ven. Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara Thera.
In addition to the above mentioned persons, Visaka Dharmadasa and staff from Association for War Affected Women (AWAW) participated, backed by professional facilitators Indika Perera, Dr. Dayani Panagoda, and Nagaratnam Vijayskanthan who also provided translations.
Dr Elias said “It was wonderful to witness the continuation of the Nagarkot (Nepal) dialogue. Heard very favourable comments about Himalaya Declaration from most participants.” It would be pertinent to mention that Dr. Elias, during the war and after, campaigned extensively against Sri Lanka.
Each district will be represented by five inter-religious persons and a civil society member – in total six per district. Therefore, from the 25 districts there will be 150 coordinators. Once all five workshops are completed, the national conversation would begin, the spokesperson said.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Interim Secretariat for Truth and Reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRM) faces a daunting challenge in securing support for the Bill for establishing a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation (CTUR).
A meeting called by ISTRM, at the second floor of the Chartered Bank Building ,on February 09, 2024, to garner support for the vital Bill, revealed the deep discontent among an influential section of the stakeholders.
Former External Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris, MP (now aligned with the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya), Emeritus Professor of Law Savitri Goonesekere, ex-member of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, and one-time member of Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Mirak Raheem, as well as Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC) Dr. Jehan Perera, pointed out the deficiencies and weaknesses in the latest process against the backdrop of past failures.
Prof. Goonesekere was severely critical of the criminal justice system and the failure on the part of successive governments to address legitimate grievances of the people whereas Raheem underscored the responsibility on the part of the government to win the confidence of those affected by the conflict. Rahim didn’t mince his words as he pointed out that the government efforts lack credibility.
They commented on the Bill after Director General of ISTRM Dr. Asanga Gunawansa, PC, and Head of the Secretariat’s Policy Division Dr. Yuvi Thangarajah explained the ongoing process meant to create an environment conducive for the CTUR to commence investigations as soon as President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed it on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council (Wickremesinghe is annoyed with the 10-mmeber CC over some key appointments, including that of the IGP. A dispute between the President and the CC can cause a debilitating constitutional crisis ahead of the forthcoming presidential poll.).
Journalist Nilantha Illangamuwa and Nilanthan Niruthan of the Centre for Law and Warfare expressed their views on the Bill, with the former frowning on the NGO agenda.
Dr. Gunawansa’s declaration of the government’s readiness to withdraw the Bill that had been submitted by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, in consultation with President Wickremesinghe, in case discussions with various stakeholders proved the need for significant changes, triggered quite a sharp response from Prof. Peiris, the only lawmaker at the meeting.
Prof. Peiris questioned the rationale in gazetting what Dr. Gunawansa called a concept paper. The internationally renowned law academic declared that an assurance to introduce amendments at committee stage of the Bill couldn’t be accepted against the backdrop of the disgraceful conduct on the part of Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and the government parliamentary group in passing the ‘Online Safety Bill’ without accommodating specific recommendations made by the Supreme Court, he alleged.
Regardless of the absence of consensus among the participants regarding the CTUR Bill, the discussion helped the ISRTM to comprehend the issues at hand and perhaps may influence Dr. Gunawansa’s team to re-examine the Bill. Several civil society representatives, in addition to those mentioned above, and an official of ONUR (Office for National Unity and Reconciliation), promised to submit their comments in respect of the CTUR Bill. The Office of Missing Persons (Parliament passed OMP Act on August 11, 2016) and Office for Reparations (The Office for Reparations Act No. 34 of, 2018 was enacted and came into operation on October 22nd, 2018. This was the second statute adopted by Sri Lanka in line with the Geneva dictates. The first was the OMP Act).
Since then the Yahapalana government co-sponsored a disgraceful accountability resolution against one’s own country at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Oct 01, 2015, altogether Sri Lanka has seven Acts, the seventh being the ONUR Act passed recently.
Dr. Wasantha Bandara, an outspoken critic of the Geneva-led process, has alleged that the enactment of CTUR law would put in place a treacherous system that could be used to subject senior military officers, both retired and serving under foreign jurisdictions. However, Dr. Gunawansa, without making a direct reference to Dr. Bandara’s concerns, declared that there was absolutely no basis for such an allegation.
However, on the basis of still unsubstantiated accountability allegations not subjected to judicial process at any level, notably the US and Canada, have unilaterally taken punitive measures against selected Sri Lankan political and military leaders, possibly under perceived feelings of superiority because their Westerners, the same way they are behaving towards the hapless Palestinian Arabs, who are being butchered day and night. But here they have conveniently not resorted to any action against war-winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka other than the US denying visa to the Sinha Regiment veteran. So like kissing Western justice, it appears to go by favour.
Post-war Tamil Diaspora clash
The writer brought the recent arson attack on Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) office in Canada to the notice of ISTRM as it was carried out by elements opposed to the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) entering into a fresh dialogue with Sri Lanka on the basis of what is widely referred to as the Himalayan Declaration with the backing of a section of the Buddhist monks (Sangha for Better Sri Lanka).
The CTC-backed GTF initiative (Dec 7-15, 2023 visit) received significant support but an influential and violent section of the Tamil Diaspora reacted angrily. They were especially piqued by the visiting delegation paying a courtesy call on wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The result was the attack on the CTC office on January 27th. The incident shook the Canadian Tamils of Sri Lankan origin and caused concern among the Tamil Diaspora.
The bone of contention is Raj Thavaratnasingham of the CTC joining US, UK and Australia based representatives to promote what GTF spokesperson Suren Surendiran described as a national conversation involving all communities.
In spite of the Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo Eric Walsh declaring Canadian support for the latest initiative, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree condemned the GTF-CTC effort.
The Tamil Guardian in a report, titled ‘A betrayal beyond belief’ – Tamil Canadians vent their fury at CTC after meeting with Rajapaksa,’ quoted Anandasangaree as having said: “The recent engagement by the Global Tamil Forum and the Canadian Tamil Congress with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is deplorable.
According to the report posted on Dec 18, 2023, the Member of Parliament for Scarborough Rouge Park questioned why the Tamil Diaspora delegation met Mahinda Rajapaksa against the backdrop of both him and ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sanctioned by Canada for gross and systematic violations of human rights.
President of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Canada branch Thangavelu, in an e-mail sent to the Canadian Minister, about a week after the attack on the CTC office, has questioned the failure on his part to denounce what he called a despicable and cowardly act.
Thangavelu pointed out several matters to the Canadian Minister. (1) Those responsible for arson attack on the CTC office called its members Tamil traitors for backing the Himalayan Declaration that has received the backing of a significant section of the Buddhist clergy (2) alleged lawmaker Anandasangaree joined Canada-based LTTE rump (3) Anandasangaree’s comments to the Tamil Guardian were not acceptable (4) challenged Anandasangaree’s claim that the CTC declared it represented the Tamil Diaspora (5) reminded Anandasangaree how those LTTE remnants campaigned against him at the 2015 general election. Calling them ultra-Tamil nationalists, Thangavelu recalled how they campaigned for a Punjabi, whereas the CTC threw its full weight behind Anandasangaree (6) disruption caused by pro-LTTE elements at an indoor meeting organized by Canada TNA on Nov 20, 2021 where the main speakers were TNA MPs M.A. Sumamthiran and Shanakiyan R. Rasamanickam. Thangavelu identified Deva Subapathy of the National Council of Canadian Tamils as the person who directed the attack (7) international community under any circumstances wouldn’t intervene in Sri Lanka to carve out a separate Tamil Eelam State (8) referring to the South African complaint to the International Court of Justice over Israeli military campaign may constitute genocide, the TNA Canada Chief questioned the rationale in trying to drag Sri Lanka before ICJ and International Criminal Court (ICC) as the country was not a signatory to the Rome Statue that created the ICC and (8) the threat of fresh Sinhala colonization in predominately Tamil speaking areas, particularly in the East where the Tamil community is a minority.
Anandasangaree has chosen not to respond to Thangavelu’s e-mail so far. Perhaps our High Commissioner in Ottawa Harsha Kumara Navaratne should try to arrange Anandasangaree to visit Colombo in the near future. The Canadian Minister should seek to play a positive role in post war national reconciliation here than being trapped in the vote banks of immigrant communities.
India’s culpability and other matters
The writer drew attention of the ISTRM to the necessity to amend the Bill as it didn’t take into consideration the covert Indian intervention that caused terrorism here, leading to a conventional conflict and the presence of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka during July 1987-March 1990.
The gathering was told that the truth seeking process would be meaningless unless the period during which India trained thousands of Sri Lankan youth in India during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the Premier received attention.
The attempt made by Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom in early Nov 1988 was also highlighted to underscore the importance of a wider investigation as successive Sri Lankan governments made some desperate and foolish efforts to reach consensus with thd Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the conflict. The writer recalled how President Ranasinghe Premadasa, during the 1989-1990 period, funded terrorists to the tune of Rs 125 mn, and millions worth of arms, ammunition and equipment.
ISTRM must realize that killings occurred during the raid on the Maldives, the killing of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in South India, in May 1991, and the killings during the deployment of the Indian Army here as well as the killings ordered by India in the run-up to the July 29, 1987 Indo-Lanka peace accord, cannot be ignored.
If ISTRM bothered to speak with sitting TNA MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan, he would tell them how TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), another group trained by India, assassinated his father V. Dharmalingam, and his colleague M. Alalasundaram, both Jaffna District MPs, on the night of Sept 2/3, 1985. MP Dharmalingham, in an interview with the writer, in 1997, alleged that the TELO abducted and killed two MPs at the behest of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the aftermath of the failed Thimpu talks to put the blame on the LTTE.
Dr. Yuvi Thangarajah, the co-author of ‘The Politics of the North-East: part of the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict Assessment 2005 (2000 – 2005)’ the current head of the ISTRM’s Policy Division can direct the investigation in the right direction.
The report produced by Yuvi Thangarajah and Liz Philipson, with the financial backing of the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and Northern Ireland, Asia Foundation and the World Bank, dealt with the LTTE that believed in its strength to achieve its objectives through military means. Dr. Thangarajah, having dealt with the issues at a time the LTTE wielded immense conventional military capacity witnessed the eradication of that power within less than three years (2006 August-May 2009). Now the academic can play a significant role in shaping the investigation, if he really wanted to or allow the probe to disregard important matters.
The writer brought the following events/developments to the notice of ISTRM: (1) the releasing of approximately 12,000 combatants taken into custody after the collapse of the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in April-May 2009 (2) why presidential pardon shouldn’t be granted to those who had been convicted by courts and others (3) the TNA’s responsibility for LTTE’s atrocities, including recruitment of child soldiers and violence in the North-East after the R. Sampanthan’s political party in 2001 recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people (4) killings carried out by the LTTE exploiting its relationship with the government. A case in point is the unsuspecting SLAF airlifting LTTE gunmen from Mullaithivu to Colombo who carried out the assassination of TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam and Vettivelu Yogeswaran, both MPs (5) thousands of persons listed as missing here receiving foreign passports, in most cases with new identities and (6) How many Tamils perished in fighting among various groups during the conflict as well as total number of LTTE cadres executed by the organization on charges of treason.
It would be the responsibility of the government to ensure a comprehensive investigation that would establish the truth. ISTRM should consider what former Indian High Commissioner J.N. Dixit revealed in 2004 ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha.’
Dixit found fault with Indian Premier Indira Gandhi on two foreign policy decisions. One of them was the Indian intervention here. Dixit declared that her active support (it meant recruiting, arming, training and deploying thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil youth across the Palk Strait) to Sri Lankan terrorists (he called them militants) was based on the principle that she could not afford the emergence of Tamil separatism in India by refusing to support the aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils.
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